HITS BACK - The Clash (Sony)
Welcome to my new favourite Clash album. Well that’s an odd statement, isn’t it? I mean to say, it’s just a compilation album, isn’t it? Another entry in a seemingly endless series of Clash compilation albums bearing titles like “Story of”, “Essential”, “On Broadway”, “Singles” and “Super Black Market”. Who actually needs another reshuffling of this well trod back catalogue? According to Sony Music, we do. Like, surely this is an anniversary of something or other. This time the compilation explores the central conceit of a “hand written set list by Joe Strummer.” This begs the question; was there ever a set list that wasn’t hand written before, say, the early nineties and the availability of the home computer with printer to even the most drug addled musician? Love the hand writing and spelling, Joe. Slade and the City of London Freemen’s School would be proud.
According to the gospel of enclosed linear notes, Strummer wrote a different set list every night based on such arcane factors as “emotional impact”, “keys” and “dynamics”. Wow. Have we really entered a world where this is an alien concept requiring explanation? I don’t know. Has Pat Gilbert, the linear note’s author ever attended a gig or the ritual plonk down with a pint, a felt tip pen and a pile of A4 sheet? What is even weirder is that this set list wasn’t followed on the night anyway and the two CD set is filled out with songs that weren’t on the list in the first place. From what you’ve read so far, this disc sounds like a real winner, doesn’t it? A last minute attempt to pay for upcoming liver transplants or unpaid tax bills. Why am I not demanding my twenty bucks back?
To clear up any confusion, despite what appears to be some kind of deliberate promotional sleight of hand, this is not a live recording of these tracks. It is a collection of studio tracks based on the set list. The kind of tape (or playlist for you young folk) you may have compiled from memory after going to see your favourite band. There are some more obscure renditions of songs including 12 inch single versions and the like but mostly this is the same old same old.
In fact, this is actually the bargain basement package that accompanies a far more grandiose reissue. Also available is the Sound System box set bonanza that contains everything Clash (apart from the appropriately named “Cut the Crap”) remastered, polished, annotated and with complimentary happy ending . Don’t even go there. You can’t afford it. I can’t afford it. I doubt sodding Elton John can afford it. And it’s not as if the record company is giving them away to reviewers. (Of course, if Sony sees this hugely complimentary review, they should feel free to reward my interest by... but I digress.) As I have said, the central conceit of this condensed package sounds a little inaccurate, bloated and self mythologising - but we are talking about the Clash. Let’s face it, the Clash were a band who knew their way around an art school media studies class on the subject of bigger storms in smaller teacups. Who recalls the where’s Wally (sorry that should read Joe) fiasco? Remote/Complete Control? Guns on the roof? Much ado about nothing.
But for all my qualms, concerns and general piss taking, this CD (also available as 3 LP) set works. It works so well that it has dominated my listening for the last ten days and shows no sign of being relegated to the racks any time soon. But why? As Zero Mostel so plaintively cried, “Where did we go right?”
There is a tremendous mythology about the arrival of punk. The mystery of how, in a pre Internet age, so-called punk bands sprung up in all corners of the world. Some ascribe near supernatural Jungian theories whilst others point at the prevailing social and cultural malaise. I have my own theory that involves technology. You see, I know that some of you just love that crazy vinyl sound. It is so warm, so scratchy, so dusty, so coated in the turntable rumble of motors spinning and diamonds gouging away at your precious wobbly discs. It’s just so authentic. Pumped through the AM band and spewed out of transistor radios, we actually did hear music differently and our attempts to recreate these sounds created punk rock.
A case in point: The Rolling Stones “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction.” We all know the riff but listen to just how little guitar is actually in the original record. But just about every band in the '70s covered it in a go to whoa car slamming of chords. And anyone who didn’t was just a wimp fucking with the beloved spirit of rock and roll. This was our perception of rock and roll based on what we thought it should sound like and this was the birth of punk (both sixties and seventies versions). Listen to the fury of Mystery Train by Elvis Presley and you’ll hear plenty of guitar but the drum sound is nothing beyond a tapping of stick on piano stool. Watch what a modern rockabilly band does in an attempt to reproduce that feel. And I’m not saying that is a bad thing. It is how our music developed. We hear what we hear but sift it through our perceptions. We recreate what we hear but through the filter of our desires. Single notes became chords as we cast aside the tyranny of learnt by rote classical scales.
Transistors replaced valves. The electronics industry moved to Asia. Sudden, you could buy cheap electric guitars with necks thin enough to get your hand around. Let’s face it. Punk was pretty much inevitable.
Much of the initial hatred of CDs by rock enthusiasts came through our misfortune of actually hearing the reality of our cherished history. The Trogg’s Wild Thing became Mild Thing as the guitars we imagined pummelling the world into submission vanished behind the flute solo. We had conceived our punk rock and roll aesthetic from mono Dansette record players cranked full volume. Our record collections had always been fed through the audio equivalent of a fuzz box. CDs revealed the folly of our ways until humanity learnt to remaster everything through a trumped up computer based overdrive pedal. It also produced a bonanza for record companies who having sold you the record then improved your experience by selling you the CD, the remastered CD and the remastered enhanced CD. Now you want the song on your phone, you can down load the MP3.
These advancements have proved mixed blessings.
Back to the story of punk... The Ramones had taken bubblegum music and doubled the bass line with guitar. Half a world away, The Saints, though more rockist, stumbled across the same template. Others saw how they did it and it wasn’t exactly rocket science. Suddenly the world filled up with a thousand bands trying to play the new toy called punk. The Clash were different and it is hard to explain that first wild splash of 45s. Each new disc delivered so much more than was expected. The late Andrew Macmillan of RAM once said of the growing scene “The Clash are the only original sounding punk band. Everyone else sounds like sped up Black Sabbath.” The Hard On’s Raymond Ahn explained it similarly when asked to play a Joe Strummer tribute gig. “I don’t know why they asked me,” he half joked. “I don’t get that music at all.”
The thing is, musically, the Clash were incredibly traditional. This compilation testifies to the fact that their arrangements are largely sixties based and, like the aforementioned Rolling Stones, they were not afraid of eschewing guitars where necessary to add breathing space and dynamics to songs. They readily include elements of ska, reggae, motown and soul beside the rock, blues and country mainstay. Rhythm guitar slashes across the snare beats may have thrown some listeners but these were not uncommon elements. Many talk about the revolutionary idea of including ska and reggae sounds in a punk mix but these were common elements in British chart music and had been frequently plundered by the old school dinosaur bands. Claims that the Clash’s version of “Police and Thieves” is any more authentic than Clapton’s shooting of his own foot (sorry the sheriff) are largely subjective. Dreadlocked youth certainly didn’t hear the Clash and suddenly throw their Jimmy Cliff and Dillinger records away in a fit of inspired revelation of how the music should be played..
The bass is largely the central instrument even in the punkier first album songs (re-listen to White Riot and try to work out why you couldn’t play it in straight chords. It may be all hands on board for the intro but it backs off into sparse lead lines when the vocals come in and the bass is doing all the work). Perhaps this is why the remastering of this album has proved so successful. Paul Simonon’s playing skips and bounces. It damn near pirouettes. With the clarity and prominence of this very danceable foundation, the songs gathered here form a unity of vision in a way no previous Clash compilation has. It would be hard to do anything with the first album’s biscuit tin drums or the bizarre dope inspired mixing anomalies dragged into single releases via reggae producers (i.e. what the fuck is that cymbal doing in Clash City Rockers?”). The tightening up of the bottom end of these recordings has really improved the tracks’ impact. For once, everything old actually does sound new. Yesterday, I went to the Record Crate Bar and Grill and, despite that establishment’s massively superior sound system, hearing many of the same songs on “The Story of the Clash” proved disappointing in comparison to this new compilation. The sound of “Hits Back” is clear but still tough, playing heavily to the band’s strengths.
And Strummer and Jones’ guitars are beautiful things. Strummer’s clean but jagged rhythms and Jones clean almost architectural lead lines delivered with the loose confidence of heroes Richards and Thunders. Add the duo’s smart vocals both lead and backing and there is not a lot to complain about. Both Terry Chimes and Topper Headon provide the kind of light footed tight and effective drumming that can only make this kind of band work. This is a great band playing great songs. Whilst questioning the need for a new retrospective, it’s hard to knock the quality of the cloth it’s cut from.
As we run through the new disc, what becomes obvious is that this set is actually working as an album in its own merits. The show this compilation is based on was held in Brixton in South London and this must have weighed heavily on Strummer’s mind. As the set list was being drawn up, the Brixton theme runs deep, almost to the point where this becomes a concept album about a time, a place and, yes, a mythology; an alternate Quadrophenia with scooters replaced by buses to Streatham. Whilst that Who album was recorded in the Seventies looking back at the Sixties, this take moves ten years on. It’s still a lonely blokes’ life wrapped in a neat bow of existential angst but now love and girls scarcely get a mention (unless we’re talking about the love a man has for his mates). It ticks off the drugs, crime and revolutionary fantasy boxes but in an infinitely more listenable way than their London punk contemporaries. In fact, this remains one of the oddities about The Clash. Songs like “Train in Vain” and “Should I stay or Should I Go” suggested they could write effective songs about love but somehow their public image held them back from this course. What is even odder is that they could still create music with enough sex in the groove to ensure continued radio play.
The Clash, throughout their career, leapt through a variety of styles and producers. The first album sounds like it was recorded in one take in a demo studio and sounded all the better for it. The rumour goes the US demanded at alternate version because they considered some tracks to be so badly recorded as to be un-releasable. But rumour and the Clash went hand in hand and the more obvious explanation was a demand for more of the single only tracks to be included. “Give ‘em Enough Rope” may have had all the guitar muscle that Sandy Pearlman could bring to the table but you couldn’t miss the sounds of motown creeping in on the edges. (You don’t believe me? Listen to the outro of “Stay Free” and we’ll argue the toss.) “London Calling” cemented the transition to wider musical stylings but arguably carried a little too much padding. “Sandinista” was a sprawling three disc epic, too large to be taken in by man or beast. It pretty much screamed commercial suicide and did everything but begged for an overseer to cast large chunks into the nearest rubbish bin. By the time they re-emerged lean and mean for “Combat Rock”, they had tripped over Hip Hop and seemed to bear no resemblance to the band they once were. Add to this disarray, a huge spray of non album singles and you have a band difficult to reconcile in a compilation package. Previous efforts have followed the tried and tested course of chronology but this one trumps them all. It’s not all the obvious candidate big hits in a line either. Album tracks from all eras find comfortable harbour too.
By way of summary, the themes and remastering of this 32 track compilation have defied all odds and reclaimed a freshness for this material you will have allowed to slip from memory. This is a great entry level for new comers too. Of course, if you’ve got the original albums, it’s going to seem a waste of money to revisit the same old same old. I would, however, recommend you take a listen. - Bob Short
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